National Catholic Register


‘Common Ground’ Proving Hard to Find

Initiative stirs emotions on all sides


September 1, 1996 Issue | Posted 9/1/96 at 1:00 PM


‘Stakes are high for future of American Church’

MSGR. PHILIP MURNION, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, is a major player behind the Common Ground project recently launched by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

In a statement intended to begin the dialogue, Common Ground organizers lament a Church in the United States which “has entered a time of peril” in which many of its leaders feel “under siege and increasingly polarized” by pressure groups from the left and the right.

The statement, titled Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril, and a follow-up series of meetings planned for next year, come at a time of growing discord in the Church. It's been something of a long, hot summer in American Catholic circles as several issues have come to the fore.

If Msgr. Murnion had any doubt that the Common Ground statement was speaking to real divisions in the Church, it was disabused by the quick critical reaction it generated from opposing quarters. Two prominent American cardinals, Bernard Law of Boston and James Hickey of Washington, D.C., attacked it for not supporting the teaching of the hierarchy and encouraging dissent. Frances Kissling, director of Catholics for a Free Choice, a group in favor of abortion and condemned by the hierarchy, argued that the statement wasn't inclusive enough of groups like hers.

“Putting the statement out has provoked the kind of polarized comments that the statement said is getting in the way of the real challenges the Church is facing,” Msgr. Murnion told the Register.

The Common Ground statement describes a Church in the United States still groping to make an impact on society more than 30 years after Vatican II. It argues that a “mood of suspicion and acrimony hangs over many of those most active in the Church's life” and that “candid discussion is inhibited” in a polarized atmosphere beset by arguments between liberals and conservatives.

It calls for a dialogue which addresses the role of women in the Church and society. It also urges the initiation of an open discussion about the image and morale of priests; the ways in which the Church manifests its positions in the political sphere; the dwindling financial resources in many parishes, and how decisions are made in the Church. It calls for discussing such issues in an atmosphere free of rancor and with the recognition “that no single group or viewpoint in the Church has a complete monopoly on the truth.”

Cardinal Bernardin, in announcing the project during a Chicago press conference, said that “the unity of the Church is threatened” by growing polarization in the Church and that “the great gift of the Second Vatican Council is in danger of being seriously undermined.”

Driven to succeed

The cardinal, who has a long reputation as a reconciler in the Church, said he wants the project to succeed, in part because he is personally battling cancer. He indicated that Common Ground could be his final lasting achievement in a long career which included national leadership positions with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and as a leader who has always sought common ground on difficult issues, including the controversial U.S. bishops statement which condemned the arms race and warned about the potential perils of nuclear conflict.

“When one comes face to face with the reality of death in a very profound way as a cancer patient, one's perspective on life is altered dramatically,” said Cardinal Bernardin.

The project will feature an advisory committee of seven other bishops, including Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile and Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., It will also include 16 Catholic leaders from across the ideological spectrum, including Msgr. Murnion, philosopher Michael Novak, Judge John Noonan Jr. of San Francisco, Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey, Harvard Law professor and Vatican adviser Mary Ann Glendon, and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

Despite the involvement of this Catholic American dream team, criticism from Cardinal's Law and Hickey has gotten the project off to a rocky start. While neither attacked the project, both criticized the launching statement as going too far in encouraging dialogue with dissident viewpoints.

“Throughout, there are gratuitous assumptions, and at significant points it breathes an ideological bias which it elsewhere decries in others. The fundamental flaw in this document is its appeal for ‘dialogue’ as a path to ‘common ground,’” said Cardinal Law.

“Dissent from revealed truth or the authoritative teaching of the Church cannot be ‘dialogued’ away,” he added. “Truth and dissent from truth are not equal partners in ecclesial dialogue.”

Cardinal Hickey argued that “we cannot achieve Church unity by accommodating those who dissent from Church teaching—whether on the left or on the right. To compromise the faith of the Church is to forfeit our ‘common ground’ and to risk deeper polarization.”

Cardinal Hickey said that the statement “does not give the magisterium its due” because “it seems to regard magisterial teaching as only one element of consensus that is to be forged out of contrasting opinions.”

Novak said that he agreed with the tone of the cardinals' criticisms of the statement, but that doesn't mean the dialogue should be stopped.

“The statement is not the guide of what we do. It is the description of the current situation,” he said.

He said that Church teaching, as articulated by Pope John Paul II, often includes a long process of dialogue and discussion.

Novak, himself a former critic of the Church teaching which forbids artificial contraception and now a supporter of it, noted that in many cases, “you just don't get it. You have to walk your way through it.”

Disagreeing, he said, is “an art” which is often not fully appreciated in Church circles. Such a dialogue envisioned by Cardinal Bernardin, said Novak, could be useful in promoting the teaching of Pope John Paul II.

Michael Ferguson, director of the Catholic Campaign for America, a group of lay Catholics which prides itself on its fidelity to papal teaching, agreed.

“My impression is that it's a good faith effort to bring people in the Church together around the teachings of the Pope,” said Ferguson, who is not a part of the dialogue. But he warned that “we can't create our own common ground” which is not consistent with Church teaching.

Seeking new harmony

Msgr. Murnion said he hopes that the statement, which has already been published in both the Register and the National Catholic Reporter, will be widely read. The National Pastoral Life Center is encouraging the distribution of reprints.

“One of our hopes is that people will take the statement and see how it applies to their own actions,” he said, noting that leaders of pressure groups on the left and right can learn to better respect each other.

As discussion continues and the statement is distributed, Msgr. Murnion said he would like to see “more attentive listening” in the Church instead of wallowing in “the divisions which rob us of learning from each other.”

Commonweal's Steinfels said the stakes in the Common Ground project are high. It needs to succeed if the Catholic Church is to be a force in American culture in the next century.

“There has been a kind of wandering in the desert” over the past 30 years, she told the Register.

While “I feel often that most of us have more in common than disagreement,” time is running out on the Church in the United States,” said Steinfels. The Common Ground process needs to be re-enacted throughout Catholic America, she said, warning that the Church in this country has about 10 years to get its act together.

At that point, she said, the priest shortage will begin to make a major impact on the way the Church operates. If lay people are not prepared, the impact of Catholicism here will wither, she cautioned.

“Lay people will really have to be the heart of the Church. I don't see it happening, in part because we are paralyzed by some of these arguments.”

Efforts like Common Ground, she said, are a way “to look the future in the face.”

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.